Monday, December 28, 2020

Moon Zero Two

John Burke’s Moon Zero Two is a novelisation of the obscure but extremely interesting 1969 Hammer science fiction movie of the same name. The movie was an expensive project for Hammer and it bombed at the box office. Which is a pity because it’s not a bad movie at all. One of the credited writers on the movie was Gavin Lyall and regular readers of this blog will know that I regard Lyall as one of the best thriller writers of the 60s and 70s (he wrote some superb aviation thrillers including The Most Dangerous Game and Shooting Script). And Moon Zero Two does have much of the same feel as Lyall’s aviation thrillers.

The novelisation came out in 1969.

Moon Zero Two takes place on the Moon half a century after the beginning of lunar exploration. The great age of space exploration is over. Now the big corporations control everything. There are tourist hotels on the Moon. It’s no place for bold space explorers any more. Which is a problem for the narrator, Bill Kemp. It’s a problem because Bill Kemp is by nature a bold space explorer. In fact he was the first man on Mars. Now he pilots a beat-up barely spaceworthy lunar ferry, the Moon Zero Two. He could easily get a job as a spaceliner pilot for the Corporation but that would mean giving up and accepting the new corporate world and Bill Kemp is just not the sort of guy who can do that. Piloting the Moon Zero Two is dangerous and pays badly but he’s his own boss.

Or at least he’s his own boss until the space agencies start making noises about declaring the Moon Zero Two unspaceworthy.

Then along comes a fabulously wealthy businessman named Hubbard with a proposition. Hubbard needs a space pilot (preferably one who doesn’t worry too much about regulations) to crash-land a small asteroid on the Moon. Why? That’s simple. The asteroid in question happens to be six thousand tons’ worth of pure gem-grade sapphire. It’s all highly illegal but potentially very profitable and that’s the sort of deal that appeals to Hubbard. It doesn’t appeal to Bill Kemp until Hubbard makes him an offer he can’t refuse - a brand new space ferry.

Adding complications to Kemp’s life is a girl who is looking for her missing brother Wally (a lunar miner on the Farside). One of the lunar communications satellites is down so at present there is no contact with Farside. The girl Clem, wants Kemp to help her to find Wally.

Kemp is already in trouble with the Bureau of Investigations in the person of Agent Liz Murphy. He’s having an affair with Liz and you might think that would be to his advantage but it isn’t. It makes things worse. Love affairs can be complicated.

There’s adventure and danger in space and on the lunar surface. There’s a plot that is a bit more complex than it initially appears to be. There are romantic entanglements. And there’s murder.

Hubbard is the kind of villain the reader will love to hate, motivated by power and greed but even more so by ego. Kemp is an effective enough hero. He’s not especially complex but he’s likeable. He’s just a guy who doesn’t like being pushed around and he quickly discovers that working for Hubbard involves lots of being pushed round. 

Clem is a good heroine - she’s plucky but she’s also rather cynical. She’s worried about her brother but she’s also worried about getting back the money that he borrowed for his hare-brained mining venture on the Moon. She’s a practical kind of girl.

There are some hard science fiction elements as well as the space adventure stuff. This isn’t a dazzling piece of science fiction but it’s very entertaining (as is the Moon Zero Two movie). Recommended.

Friday, December 25, 2020

my best reads of 2020

It’s that time of year again - the time for making lists. These were the books I most enjoyed during 2020. I’ve divided them into genres.

My favourite science fiction reads:

Leigh Brackett’s moody 1951 sword-and-planet adventure Black Amazon of Mars. No-one did sword-and-planet tales better than Brackett.

Nictzin Dyalhis’s truly odd and rather uneven but intriguing collection of short stories (published in Weird Tales between 1925 and 1940) The Sapphire Goddess.

Paul W. Fairman’s 1952 hardboiled detective/science fiction crossover novel The Girl Who Loved Death which works quite well in both genres.

My favourite spy fiction reads:

Derek Marlowe’s superb 1966 tale of a Russian spy in Britain, A Dandy in Aspic. Lots of moral ambiguity and divided loyalties.

F. Van Wyck Mason’s 1931 The Fort Terror Murders, although it’s arguably more a crime story than a spy story.

My favourite detective fiction reads:

Erle Stanley Gardner’s wonderfully plotted 1936 Perry Mason mystery The Case of the Stuttering Bishop.

Charles Forsyte’s 1968 tale of murder in the British Embassy in Ankara Murder with Minarets. It captures the distinctive feel of diplomatic life extremely well. I'm delighted that TomCat shared my enthusiasm for this one - here's his review.

Bert and Dolores Hitchens’ splendid railway mystery End of the Line (and you know how much I love railway mysteries).

My favourite crime fiction reads:

James O. Causey’s dark paranoid 1957 noir tale Killer Take All!

John McPartland’s 1953 noir pulper Big Red's Daughter.

And two from Wade Miller (rapidly becoming my favourite noir writer) - Kitten with a Whip and Kiss Her Goodbye, both emotional roller coaster rides into nightmare.

The most popular posts with my readers have been:

Elspeth Huxley’s The African Poison Murders (AKA Death of an Aryan).

Henry Slesar’s delightfully enjoyable science fiction horror tale of monsters from the sea, The Secret of Marracott Deep.

Orrie Hitt's Wayward Girl, a classic of juvenile delinquency and sleaze with a touch of noir

And John Rhode’s cleverly constructed Death in the Hop Fields (AKA The Harvest Murder).

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Wade Miller’s Kiss Her Goodbye

Wade Miller’s Kiss Her Goodbye was published in 1956. Wade Miller was actually the two-man writing team of Robert Wade (1920-2012) and Bill Miller (1920-1961), friends since childhood who wrote thirty-three novels together between 1946 and 1961. They wrote under the name Wade Miller and several other pseudonyms. They’re perhaps best-known for Badge of Evil (the basis for the Orson Welles film noir classic Touch of Evil) and Kitten With a Whip (also memorably filmed).

Brother and sister Ed and Emily Darnell are driving through the desert and Ed is jumpy. He thinks they may be pursued. But maybe the guy isn’t going to press charges. If only he could get hold of a Bakersfield paper he’d have some idea if they really need to worry or not. Ed wants to push on to Barstow but Emily is tired so they stay at a motel in a little town called Jimmock. Ed wishes the manager wasn’t so nosy. And he wishes men would stop looking at Emily. There’s not much chance of that. Emily, just turned eighteen, is the kind of girl men do look at.

So we have a pretty fair idea of what’s probably going on. This is going to be another criminal couple on the run story. Maybe they pulled a heist in Bakersfield or maybe Ed beat up some guy (or maybe even killed some guy) for taking too much interest in Emily.

If these are our assumptions we are in fact totally wrong. This is not that kind of story. Ed and Emily are not criminals. They’re also not on the run from criminals. They are running, but what they’re running away from is something quite different. I’m not going to reveal what they’re running from or why, even though we find out quite early on, because the book works better if we start off having no idea what’s going on.

Ed and Emily decide that Jimmock is as good a place as any to start a new life. Maybe things will work out this time. It’s a nice enough town. The motel room isn’t that great but the manager, Tubbs, makes them an offer. They can stay there permanently. Tubbs is just managing the place for the bank. The bank is stuck with the place, it doesn’t make any money for them, but Tubbs likes Ed and Emily. Ed gets a job. Emily wants to get a job as well but Ed knows that would be a bad idea. The job is a good one but Ed is a bit worried by his boss.

Tubbs comes up with an ever better ideal. The bank is so desperate to unload the motel that they could buy it - Tubbs, Ed and Emily. The bank would take just about any offer. It all seems like it’s going to work out this time. Then the thing that happened in Grand Rapids and Bakersfield happens again, as Ed always knew it would.

As I’ve said in other reviews the weakness of a lot of noir fiction is the lack of any even vaguely sympathetic characters and an excess of nihilism. None of that applies to Kiss Her Goodbye. This book has characters we can really care about. They’re very flawed and they make dumb mistakes but they try really hard not to mess up their lives and they’re actually very likeable. This book is unusual in being noir fiction without any villains. There’s not a single character who could be described as evil. Bad things just happen because that’s the way things go sometimes.

Of course this is noir and there’s a palpable sense of doom. Sometimes you just can’t beat the odds. But you have to try. There’s always hope. If you don’t have hope you’re already dead. And there is love. Maybe it’s unconventional love, maybe it’s not healthy, but any kind of love is better than nothing. And there’s a certain nobility in love against the odds. Noir fiction can be sleazy and can have a tendency to wallow in the gutter. But this is not ordinary noir fiction. Wade Miller didn’t write ordinary noir fiction. Too often in noir fiction you’re just watching losers lose because that’s what losers do. The characters here are people who don’t deserve to be losers. They’re vulnerable people but they’re vulnerable through no fault of their own. Maybe they don’t play the cards that fate has dealt them all that well, maybe they deserved better cards, but the reader desperately wants them to end up OK. Whether they do survive is something you’l have to find out for yourself.

It’s a book that packs a real emotional punch.

I’ve been deliberately extremely vague about the plot which is perhaps unnecessary. If you read the blurb at the beginning you’ll discover a lot more about the plot than I’ve revealed. I went into the book having no idea what to expect and personally I think it works better that way.

Kiss Her Goodbye is a brilliant offbeat little book. It’s a minor noir masterpiece. Maybe even. In its own way, a major noir masterpiece. Very highly recommended.

The Stark House Noir edition also includes the slightly later Wade Miller novel Kitten With a Whip, another great piece of offbeat noir fiction.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

thoughts on John le Carré

Given that I posted my review of his first novel, Call for the Dead, just a few days ago and he has now passed away I should say something about John le Carré. And maybe something about modern spy fiction.

He’s not my favourite spy writer and I don’t think he was quite as ground-breaking as he was sometimes made out to be. Moral ambiguity, pessimism, the psychology of the spy and the madness of the spy game had already been explored by writers like Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. I did think however that when it came to depicting the utter deadening futility of the whole enterprise le Carré had few if any peers.

While his most admired works were The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (and they were rightly admired) I personally think his masterpiece was The Looking Glass War, published in 1965. It concerns a bunch of British spies whose glory days were World War 2 and they have never really moved on. Unfortunately they’re still running a department of the British Secret Service and when they try to pull off an ambitious operation it goes horribly, tragi-comically wrong. A great book.

His name always seemed to be linked with that of Len Deighton although I think they were really very different writers. There’s something rather tragic about le Carré’s most enduring character, George Smiley, a brilliant spy with a very subtle mind whose personal life is one long exercise in futility. And to some extent you could say the same about his professional career as a spy master. Deighton’s unnamed spy, created at almost precisely the same time, is sometimes left wondering why he bothers but there’s nothing tragic about him. He’s the sort of guy who will do OK. He’s a survivor. Deighton is ironic and cynical. Le Carré can be pretty cynical as well but le Carré still believed that the British, however incompetent they might be, were the good guys and the Russians were the bad guys. Deighton on the other hand always seems to be having fun and seems to regard life with amused but tolerant cynicism.

Le Carré and Deighton can both be seen as belonging to the gritty realist cynical school of British spy fiction and in the 60s and 70s they were certainly the two giants in that field.

I’ve reviewed all the volumes of le Carré’s Karla trilogy - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People as well as The Looking Glass War.

And, as points of comparison, I’ve reviewed Deighton’s Horse Under Water, Billion Dollar Brain, An Expensive Place To Die and and Spy Story as well as Greene’s Our Man in Havana and Stamboul Train and Ambler’s Uncommon Danger and Judgment on Deltchev.

I should add that I've also reviewed the excellent BBC TV adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and their TV version of Smiley's People.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

John le Carré’s Call for the Dead

Call for the Dead was John le Carré’s debut novel (appearing in 1961) and it also introduced his most famous character, British spymaster George Smiley.

I’ve read most of the Smiley books and I now realise I probably should have read this one first. It provides a fairly detailed backstory for Smiley, telling us a great deal about how he was recruited as a spy, his wartime career as a field agent and his unfortunate marriage (a marriage that probably did more to form his personality than anything else).

Call for the Dead opens with a very routine assignment for Smiley. Samuel Fennan has recently been promoted to a senior position in the Foreign Office with access to top secret material and he has been accused of having been a Communist Party member in the 1930s. It doesn’t take Smiley long to realise that Fennan is no security risk at all. As he remarks to his superior, half the members of the British Cabinet had been Communist Party members in the 30s. He has no hesitation in clearing Fennan. Case closed. But then Fennan commits suicide and his suicide note claims that he took his life because of harassment by the Secret Service. This puzzles Smiley a good deal. His interview with Fennan had been relaxed and informal and had ended with Smiley reassuring Fennan that he had absolutely nothing to worry about.

Smiley’s boss Maston is in a panic, he will have to smooth things over with the Minister, the Foreign Office is going to be livid and if the press gets hold of it it will all be very unpleasant. He suggests that Smiley have a word with Fennan’s window Elsa. And Smiley becomes more puzzled, especially by the 8.30 wake-up call which makes no sense. Things that don’t make sense worry Smiley and the more he thinks about this case the more things there are that don’t quite make sense.

Smiley puts the pieces together into a coherent whole but he finds that he has several pieces left over which don’t fit anywhere. That just won’t do. George Smiley is a very organised man. He will have to start again.

Smiley is already a fully formed character. His private life is a shambles and he seems like a defeated grey little man but he is a very methodical intelligence agent and he has a very subtle mind. His greatest strength is his interviewing technique. He can break just about anyone and do so politely and without any fuss. People end up wanting to confess to George Smiley.

There are the usual le Carré themes of betrayal. And as usual George Smiley, once a good spy but now a very very good spy-hunter, is quietly remorseless once he’s on the trail of a traitor.

There are no exotic settings here, and no glamour. There are no glamorous women. There’s no sex. There’s some violence, but it’s squalid and messy. Smiley has a gun and at one stage he contemplates taking it with him. Then he thinks of the awful fuss there would be if he actually used it. Smiley doesn’t like fuss so he leaves the gun at home.

This was le Carré very deliberately trying to remove all the glamour from spy fiction. His spies are civil servants. The action takes space in semi-detached cottages in suburbia and other very prosaic settings.

Naturally there’s a fair amount of emphasis on tradecraft - the nuts and bolts of how spies actually operate.

The villain is also a typical le Carré villain - there are reasons he does the things he does. He isn’t a villain simply because he is inherently evil. He has believable psychological motivations.

You don’t read le Carré for action and excitement, you read him for the stifling and sordid atmosphere of betrayal, for the insight into the psychology of the spy, for the hyper-realistic feel and as much as anything for George Smiley. This one ticks all the right boxes for le Carré fans and it provides that all-important background on Smiley. Call for the Dead is highly recommended.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Peter Cheyney's Dames Don’t Care

Peter Cheyney (1896-1951) was an English criminal investigator turned crime writer who enjoyed immense success in the late 30s and the 1940s. His Slim Callaghan books were very popular but he achieved his greatest success with his Lemmy Caution novels, beginning in 1936 with This Man Is Dangerous. Dames Don’t Care, published in 1937, was the third of the Lemmy Caution books.

Cheyney’s hero became even more popular on the Continent when the French made a series of successful (and incredibly entertaining) Lemmy Caution movies, including a 1954 film version of Dames Don’t Care.

Cheyney’s aim with the Lemmy Caution tales was to write fast-paced American-style pulp thrillers. Cheyney was English but he figured he could get away with making his hero an FBI agents and setting the stories in America. And he was right. Of course I’m sure that American readers would have spotted all sorts of mistakes about American police procedures and in the use of American slang. It doesn’t matter. This is not the real America. This is the America of gangster movies, dime novels and detective magazines. It’s a fictional world and like most good fictional worlds it’s more fun and more outrageous than the real world.

Dames Don’t Care starts in Palm Springs, with Lemmy investigating a counterfeiting case. It soon becomes a murder case as well, and there’s another sudden death that now looks might suspicious as well so even at this early stage it could be a double murder case.

Naturally there’s a dame in the case. In fact there are two. This worries Lemmy. He likes women but you never know what they’ll do next. Both these women are beautiful and glamorous. One of them may be no good. Both of them may be no good. At least Lemmy knows how to handle guys who are no good - he slugs them or shoots them. With dames that’s not always an option. He does consider giving one of them a spanking but decides against it, even if she did try to shoot him.

The action takes place partly in the U.S. and partly in Mexico. Lemmy has no jurisdiction in Mexico but that’s not going to stop him. Lemmy is not exactly a stickler for correct procedure, a fact that becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses.

The plot is complicated, with several plausible suspects and alibis that might be phoney, or they might be supposed to look phoney. The first clue is two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of counterfeit bearer bonds that one of the dames (named Henrietta) tried to pass. Maybe she knew they were counterfeit and maybe she didn’t. Henrietta is mixed up in a romantic triangle only it’s not a triangle it’s a quadrangle and it’s not clear who is doing the betraying and who is being betrayed. Maybe they’re all betraying each other. This might be a world of no-good dames but it’s also a world of no-good punks. The men and the women in this story are equally dangerous and equally treacherous.

Lemmy Caution is as fast with his wisecracks as he is with his fists. It’s a fairly violent tale but it’s a book that aims to deliver entertainment and Cheyney mixes plenty of humour in with the tough guy stuff.

Cheyney does a decent job of keeping us in doubt as to the identity of the murderer. Most of the characters are up to no good but they’re not all capable of murder. It’s just that Lemmy can’t decide which ones actually are capable of murder. And those two janes have more than murder on their minds as well - they both try to seduce our hero. Lemmy has to admit that they’re both swell-looking gals.

Lemmy gradually puts the pieces together but if he’s goings to make the charges stick he’s going to have to be devious. That’s OK, because Lemmy Caution has brains as well as brawn. Lots of criminals have made the mistake of thinking he’s all brawn.

The Lemmy Caution books are tremendous ultra-pulpy fun. Dames Don’t Care is highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Citadel of Fear

Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1884-1948) had a very brief career writing for the pulps from around 1917 to around 1919. At the time her work was widely praised by luminaries such as A. Merritt. Most of her fantasy/science fiction/weird fiction was published under the pseudonym Francis Stevens. She seems for some reason to have stopped writing in 1919. After that she disappears into complete obscurity. Until recently even the date of her death was unknown.

Her best-known novel, The Citadel of Fear, was reprinted in 1952 and her reputation slowly revived. She is now considered to be one of the most important female writers of fantasy of her era. The Citadel of Fear is a lost world story and that happens to be one of my favourite genres. The Citadel of Fear was originally serialised in the pulp magazine The Argosy in late 1918.

Two prospectors, a tall Irishman named Colin O’Hara (usually known as Boots) and a man named Kennedy, are lost in the desert somewhere in Mexico. Just when it looks hopeless for them they stumble upon a hidden valley. There’s not supposed to be any trace of civilisation anywhere in the vicinity but here is a fertile valley full of cultivated crops and a large hacienda.

There is something slightly odd about all this. The owner of the hacienda is not Mexican but a Norwegian-American and he gives the impression of being just a trifle secretive.

In fact the two prospectors haven’t just stumbled into a hidden valley, they have discovered a whole lost civilisation. A Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture, with vast temples and cities. And (of most interest to Kennedy) gold. This is the legendary land of Tlapallan. And they’ve also blundered into a power struggle between the priests of Quetzalcoatl and the priests of Nacoc-Yaotl.

While Kennedy is interested in the gold O’Hara is more interested in the moth girl. What gets Kennedy into trouble is not the gold but witnessing a religious ritual, something forbidden to outsiders. What gets O’Hara into trouble is a combination of his fascination for the moth girl, his natural chivalry and his impetuosity. These two outsiders could unwittingly start a civil war. A civil war that could involve gods taking sides.

There are some nice touches to this lost world, such as the lake. I won’t spoil things by telling you what’s strange about the lake. And the light is strange too. As in the best examples of this genre the author creates a lost world that really does feel odd and alien.

It’s only the first half of the story that takes place in Mexico. Then the scene switches to the United States, many years later, but the story is far from finished. There are monsters loose. Are they human or animal or maybe even supernatural? And there’s another strange other-worldly girl. Not the moth girl, but with the same ethereal beauty and the same oddness. She’s quite mad. At least that’s what O’Hara is told. He doesn’t seem to care, although he doesn’t really know why he’s drawn to her. Is there some memory at the back of his mind?

The latter part of the story, even without the exotic setting of the first half, has plenty of strangeness and it gets stranger. O’Hara has no idea why he has suddenly become caught up in such inexplicable and disturbing events. Again there’s an ambiguity - is this story science fiction or fantasy? Is O’Hara dealing with gods or men, with monsters or ghosts or science gone very very wrong?

He’s certainly dealing with evil, and possibly madness. A house of secrets which should have stirred some memories but perhaps not his memories.

There’s plenty of danger and action (this is after all pulp fiction), there’s some romance with a touch of weirdness and there’s some fairly visceral horror. There is at times just a slight Lovecraftian tinge although at this stage Lovecraft had only just started his weird fiction writing career so it’s more a case of Bennett and Lovecraft responding to similar literary influences.

The Citadel of Fear is a fine example of the lost world genre and it’s not surprising that it attracted the admiration of A. Merritt who would in the ’20s and ’30s explore similar territory. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Norbert Jacques' Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler

Dr. Mabuse is one of the greatest diabolical criminal masterminds in fiction. In Germany he became a pop culture icon on the scale of Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Mabuse was created by Norbert Jacques (who was born in Luxembourg but later became a German citizen) in his 1921 novel Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler). Dr. Mabuse’s place in German pop culture was cemented the following year when he became the subject of one of Fritz Lang’s most celebrated movies, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler.

Norbert Jacques wrote a sequel in 1932, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. A year later Lang directed a sequel to his film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. In 1960 Lang made another sequel, the excellent The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, which was so successful that it spawned four more Mabuse movies.

An English translation of Norbert Jacques’ original Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler by Lilian A. Clare was published in 1923.

Dr. Mabuse was by no means the first literary diabolical criminal mastermind. That honour probably belongs to Dr. Nikola, created by Australian writer Guy Boothby, who made his first appearance in the novel A Bid for Fortune in 1895. There are some definite resemblances between the two characters - both are masters of the art of hypnosis.

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler begins when a young man named Hull loses a very large amount of money gambling. The man to whom he loses the money is a man probably in his sixties who goes by the name of Balling. Hull has extraordinary bad luck but, although he is usually a cautious gambler, he also makes some very reckless decisions. The curious thing is that all his friends insist that Hull brought Balling to the gambling club but Hull has no recollection of this at all. In fact he remembers very little of the evening. It seems more like a dream. Things get even stranger the next day when Hull tries to pay his gambling debt. He goes to the address that Balling gave him and finds a Herr Balling there but he’s not the same Herr Balling and this one knows nothing of any gambling debt.

Hull is both puzzled and disturbed by he has recently acquired a new mistress so he spends the 20,000 marks on her instead.

Gambling swindles have recently attracted the attention of State Attorney Wenk. This official is a bit like a combination of a District Attorney and a Chief of Detectives and he takes a very active part in investigations. He is convinced that gambling has become a threat to German society. The further he digs into the matter the more convinced he is that all these swindles are perpetrated by a single man.

The man concerned is of course Dr. Mabuse and he’s involved in more than gambling, as Even slowly comes to realise. Mabuse is a kind of Professor Moriarty, with a hand in crimes of all kinds including smuggling and currency speculation. Mabuse is more than just a master criminal. He has extraordinary hypnotic powers which he uses to turn his victims into not just willing accomplices but slaves.

Mabuse is an obsessive. He has grandiose plans. His crimes are to finance his kingdom of Citopomar in Brazil. He had vast holdings there which he lost as a result of the war. Now he intends to reclaim his kingdom. Whether Citopomar actually exists is an open question as it is possible that Mabuse is quite mad.

What makes the story more interesting is that his nemesis, State Attorney Wenk, is every bit as obsessed as Mabuse. He may even be as mad as Mabuse.

Mabuse and Wenk have one common obsession - the beautiful (and very married) Countess Told. There’s a great deal of twisted sexual obsession in this novel.

This is a novel that is very much a reflection of Germany at the beginning of the 1920s, devastated by the shock and humiliation of defeat in war. Wenk believes that German society is diseased and needs to be purified. To Wenk the disease is manifested by an obsession with money, a lack of purpose among the upper classes and the enthusiasm for modernist art and literature. Wenk is a man looking for a moral crusade.

Needless to say this book (and Lang’s film version) is often seen as some kind of anticipation of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. In fact in 1921 the Nazi Party was just a handful of individuals and utterly obscure. The Freikorps, which opposed communism and were in some ways a precursor of the Nazis, did exist. And the German economy, soon to suffer the ravages of hyperinflation, was already shaky. The Nazi angle should not be exaggerated, but this book does reflect a growing feeling in some sections of German society that Germany had lost its way.

To Wenk Mabuse is the personification of all the evil forces threatening his country.

This novel has historical importance as the launching pad for one of the great fictional diabolical criminal masterminds and a key figure in the history of 20th century pop culture. The whole thing is outrageously complicated and melodramatic and the ending goes right over the top, but it’s weirdly fascinating and compelling. It’s a strange book that won’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s still recommended.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop is a Perry Mason mystery published in 1936.

It opens with a Church of England bishop from Australia asking Perry Mason for some legal advice regarding manslaughter and the statute of limitations. Which is a slightly odd thing for a bishop to do. If he is a bishop. You see this bishop stutters, and as everyone knows bishops don’t stutter.

The case, as it develops, involves a rich man named Brownley whose son contracts a marriage the old boy doesn’t approve of. There is indeed a case of manslaughter involved, and there’s a grand-daughter. Or rather there are too many grand-daughters. And there’s an enormous inheritance, and of course there’s murder. Paul Drake of the Drake Detective Agency is as usual involved but there are other private detectives poking around as well and they may be up to no good.

There are alibis aplenty, there are all sorts of questions of identity, there are witnesses but there’s the matter of what they actually saw and more importantly what it meant. There are lots of ruthless people and lots of tangled motives.

It’s pretty unusual for Perry Mason to get mixed up in a fist-fight. It’s even more unusual for Della Street to be involved in a fist-fight or involved with guns. But both those things happen in this story (and Della gives a pretty good account of herself). There’s quite a bit of action in this story and it’s worth remembering that Gardner started his writing career as a member of the hardboiled Black Mask school. And this is quite a hardboiled story at times.

It is usual for Perry and Paul Drake to indulge in a few minor activities that are perhaps not strictly legal, such as breaking and entering and burglary, and of course they do so in this tale. And Della does a few mildly naughty things as well, just little things like grand larceny. This is a 1930s Perry Mason story after all.

This time Mason gets himself in really deep trouble by, as always, not worrying too much about legal ethics. He’s in so deep even he thinks he could end up being disbarred or prosecuted or both and although he has some nice theories they have holes in them and he has no idea how to plug those holes. The only way out involves doing something he really dislikes doing.

The courtroom scenes are, as is quite often the case in the Perry Mason novels, involve preliminary hearings rather than actual trials (perhaps because this gives Gardner the chance to allow Mason to play a bit more fast and loose with procedures than would vie the case in a trial). He doesn’t face District Attorney Hamilton Burger in court but he does face him behind the scenes.

The solution is complex, with a lot of plot strands that somehow have to be woven together. Fortunately Gardner does this pretty well.

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop is typical 1930s Erle Stanley Gardner with Perry Mason flying by the seat of his pants and it’s hugely enjoyable.

I’m continuing with my project of comparing Perry Mason novels with the television adaptations from the 1957-66 TV series. My review of the relevant episode can be found here at Cult TV Lounge.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Girl Who Loved Death

The Girl Who Loved Death is a science fiction novella by Paul W. Fairman, originally published in Amazing Stories in 1952.

Paul W. Fairman (1909-1977) was an American science fiction writer who also wrote under the pseudonym Ivar Jorgensen. He was the founding editor of the science fiction pulp If. He started his career in the late 1940s writing detective stories. Several of his novels and stories were adapted for film and television. He may be largely forgotten today but in his lifetime he achieved some modest success.

The Girl Who Loved Death starts out like a private eye story. Nick Saturday is a private eye and he’s broke so when his landlord Mike Conlin offers to forego the rent if he takes on a case for him Nick is happy to oblige. Mike is a Korean War vet who’d been engaged to a nice girl but things didn’t work out. Now the girl has disappeared and Mike wants her found.

Nick goes to the girl’s house and walks in on a very strange scene. A woman is sitting on the edge of a bed staring down into a box. The box contains a very life-like doll, two feet tall. Then somebody slugs Nick. When he regains consciousness the woman is still staring into the box but Nick notices something odd. He’s pretty sure that before he was slugged that doll had been naked, and very very life-like indeed down to the smallest anatomical details. Now the doll is wearing a frilly blue dress.

Nick calls a doctor because the woman on the bed seems like she’s catatonic. The doctor has the woman taken to a clinic. Now things start to get strange. The woman disappears and the doctor can’t be found but Nick does find something interesting in a refrigerator. It’s a doll, naked and very life-like. So life-like you’d swear it was no doll.

You will have figured out some of what is going on by now but there are plenty of twists to come. And the science fiction elements become more and more apparent.

Nick Saturday has blundered into something that he doesn’t understand at all and he doesn’t like it. People keep hitting him on the head, which he doesn’t like either. There are lots of things in this case that Nick doesn’t like. Such as the Regal Toy Company. And half-naked blondes who give him the runaround (he has nothing against half-naked blondes but he likes to know what’s going on). He’s also going to feel pretty nervous about opening refrigerators in future.

Nick is your basic down-at-heel private eye, not terribly good at his job but he is stubborn. This is an interesting hardboiled detective-science fiction hybrid story and it has enough cynical one-liners to satisfy fans of the former and enough clever ideas to satisfy science fiction fans. Although this is a genuine science fiction story the hardbouled private eye elements work well.

As for what really is going on, like Nick Saturday you’ll have to find out the secrets hidden behind the walls of the Regal Toy Company for yourself.

Whether you’ll like the ending or not is a matter of taste. I liked it because it wasn’t what I was expecting. 

It’s worth mentioning that the cover illustration, unlike so many covers, depicts an actual moment from the story.

Armchair Fiction have issued this novella in their series of double-novel paperback editions, paired with Laurence M. Janifer’s Slave Planet. The series is a veritable treasure trove of obscure (often very obscure or totally forgotten) science fiction of the 1950s.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

William Knoles' Shame Market

Shame Market is a 1964 sleaze novel written by William Knoles (1926-1970) under the name Clyde Allison. And this is sleaze with the emphasis on fun.

Private eye Brannigan has just set off to meet a new client, Magnus V. Dumbarton. Dumbarton is very old (he’s ninety-seven) and fabulously, almost unimaginably, rich. And almost unimaginably eccentric. He suffers from a medical condition which requires him to spend his while life in a room heated to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Dumbarton figures if he has to live in a virtual hothouse he might as well do it in style, so he’s had a gigantic airship hangar converted into a hothouse. That’s where he lives. And if you’re gong to live in a hothouse you might as well do it properly, so the hangar is filled with exotic plants and animals. You know the sort of thing you’d fill a hothouse with - colourful parrots and naked Polynesian girls.

Dumbarton’s daughter has gone missing and he wants Brannigan to find her. Given that Dumbarton is ninety-seven Brannigan naturally assumes that he’s going to be looking for an old lady in her seventies who has wandered away from the old folks’ home. In fact Dumbarton’s daughter Juliet is a gorgeous twenty-year-old.

Juliet is actually Juliet V. Dumbarton, the V standing for Verne, and she prefers to call herself Juliet Verne. Juliet already has a colourful past, such as the time she captured an entire Boy Scout troop and forced the poor lads to pleasure her. All of them. Juliet has perpetrated lots of similar harmless girlish pranks.

The only clue to Juliet’s whereabouts is that she is being held captive somewhere in a town on the 15th Parallel. It could be 15 North or 15 South. So Brannigan decides to check out every town of significant size along those lines of latitude. His chances of success might seem small but he’s getting two hundred bucks a day plus expenses so he’s not complaining.

Brannigan’s search for Juliet leads him from one woman’s bed to another. The novel is a series of sexual encounters but at least the author manages to bring these encounters about in interesting and amusing ways. When you find a woman, naked except for black stockings and black gloves, rifling your suitcase in your hotel room you’re naturally surprised. You’re even more surprised to discover she’s a CIA agent. And you’re more surprised still when she explains why she carries out her intelligence duties almost stark naked. Celia, the nude CIA agent, is a graduate of the CIA’s Seduction and Slaughter course and she knows all sorts of ways in which naked girls can kill people. British spies with a Double 0 number are licensed to kill. Celia has a XX number - she’s licensed to do other things as well. Which she does with enthusiasm.

Brannigan’s meeting with the murder-inclined Scarlett Butler (yes Knoles likes jokey names) also comes about in an unexpected way.

The sex is frequent and steamy but non-graphic. This is titillation rather than porn.

While some pulp sleaze novels could be quite dark this one is light-hearted and engagingly silly. It’s played mainly for laughs. Knoles also wrote a series of spy spoof novels and Shame Market, with its exotic settings, has something of that kind of feel. It’s a private eye spoof novel, with some spy spoof motifs and with lots of sex.

Brannigan is very hardboiled and very cynical, and very unscrupulous. He’s not a bad guy but he looks out for number one and he’s not going to risk his neck to do heroic things, like rescuing damsels in distress. That’s not to say he won’t rescue a damsel in distress - he will do so if there’s no risk and if there’s something in it for him. If the damsel is likely to show her gratitude, either in the form of cash or in bed, then he’ll consider it. This could be a recipe for noir fiction but in this case it’s played for amusement, with perhaps an attempt to add an edge of black comedy.

Brannigan is like a cross between Mike Hammer and Matt Helm (the Matt Helm of the movies not the novels), but without a trace of chivalry.

Brannigan is cynical and the book itself is pretty cynical as well, albeit in an obviously  tongue-in-cheek manner. The women are there to take their clothes off and jump into bed, which they do with alacrity.

In its own way it’s amusing sleazy (very sleazy) fun and it’s recommended.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Vin Packer's The Girl on the Best Seller List

Marijane Meaker (born 1927) has had a successful writing career in several different genres. Between 1952 and 1969 she wrote pulp crime novels under the name Vin Packer. The Girl on the Best Seller List, published in 1960, is one of her better known titles from this period.

Gloria Whealdon lives in small town called Cayuta in New York State. She has just published a bestselling novel, called Population 12,360. It’s a Peyton Place-style sin and sensation novel set in a town that is obviously Cayuta and all the characters are thinly disguised versions of the townsfolk of Cayuta. Very thinly disguised. And her portraits of the townspeople are very unflattering indeed.

Not surprisingly the book has made her enemies in Cayuta. In fact quite a few of the Cayutians are now spending most of their waking hours thinking of ways to kill Gloria Whealdon. Her husband Milo is one of them.

Gloria wasn’t overly popular in Cayuta even before she wrote her book. She is awkward, a bit of a slob and socially inept. She might not be a very good writer but she has an unerring instinct for spotting people’s weaknesses and she is merciless in exposing those weaknesses in print. This particular talent is something that sells a lot of books.

This is a crime book but although there’s plenty of talk of murder it takes a long long time before any crime of any kind occurs. This is necessary because this is not a crime book that relies on alibis or fingerprints. All that matters is motive. As the story unfolds we discover more and more characters who have reasons to fear, reasons to hate and things to hide. All potential motives for a crime.

Each chapter begins with a quote from Gloria Whealdon’s book, so there’s a kind of “book within a book” thing going on. Of course The Girl on the Best Seller List is in its own way as much of an exposé of small town life as Gloria Whealdon’s fictional Population 12,360, although The Girl on the Best Seller List has the psychological insights  that Gloria Whealdon’s book lacks. Gloria Whealdon is a very mean-spirited person who has written a very mean-spirited book. Vin Packer’s book is not as deliberately cruel but it’s not exactly flattering to most of its characters either. They have some serious personality flaws and they’ve managed to mess up their lives rather comprehensively.

As to the mystery, there are at least four obvious suspects and several less obvious ones who can’t be entirely dismissed. The possible motives are quite varied. There’s not much in the way of actual detection but there is an important clue that one of the characters picks up on that leads to the solution. It certainly doesn’t qualify as a traditional puzzle-plot detective story but it’s not quite a typical psychological crime novel either. And although there’s plenty of foreshadowing it’s not an inverted mystery. Vin Packer takes her own idiosyncratic approach to writing a crime novel.

There’s a fair amount of rather black humour.

The “book within a book” aspect gets a twist as well - it turns out to be a book about two books. Which sounds a bit postmodern.

To add one more layer one of the characters is a psychologist and he’s treating several of the other characters.

Whether you’ll be satisfied by the solution to the mystery is a matter of taste but the motive is interestingly odd.

There’s no graphic sex but a great deal of the plot revolves around sexual and emotional entanglements.

The Girl on the Best Seller List is unusual and even at times just a little bizarre. The characters are complex although they’re also somewhat outrageous and exaggerated. It’s an oddity of a book, not really typical of crime fiction of its era, but its oddness makes it intriguing. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. TV tie-in novel)

The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair by Simon Latter (published in 1967) is one of the five TV tie-in novels spawned by the 1966-67 television series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

Like the other Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair has a much more serious tone than the TV series. And it involves pirates. Real pirates indirectly, and their piratical descendants directly. And on the whole it's fairly lightweight but it's not a bad little spy tale.

Here’s the link to my full review at Cult TV Lounge.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Erle Stanley Gardner’s pulp fiction, part 2 - the Lester Leith stories

Erle Stanley Gardner is best remembered for the Perry Mason mysteries. Aficionados of golden age detective fiction also know him as the creator of other series characters such as private detectives Cool and Lam and DA Doug Selby. Before achieving immense success as a novelist Gardner had been an unbelievably prolific writer of short stories and novelettes for the pulps and had created several other series detectives who gained huge followings. One of the most popular was Lester Leith who appeared in around sixty short stories between 1929 and 1943.

Lester Leith is a gentleman thief. He’s also a hero rogue rather in the style of the Saint. Such heroes were immensely popular in the 1920s (Blackshirt being a prime example). He is a thief who preys on other thieves. He is a rich man and most of the money he steals goes to charity although, like the Saint, he keeps enough of his ill-gotten gains to maintain a very comfortable lifestyle for himself.

And as is the case with the Saint the police go to great lengths to bring Leith to justice but he’s always one step ahed of them. They have even planted a police spy on him, posing as his valet. This amuses Leith. He nicknames the spy Scuttle. While his charitable donations are sincere he seems to be motivated primarily by the sheer joy of irritating the police. Of course Leith has a nemesis, or at least a would-be nemesis, in the person of Sergeant Ackley. Ackley regards himself as a pretty clever fellow and he is convinced that sooner or later he is going to catch Leith. The trouble is that while Ackley is sneaky and devious the truth is that he’s not all that smart, and perhaps not all that honest.

Ackley’s invariable method is to get his spy to tempt Leith into attempting to solve a carefully selected case

False Alarm was published in the 5th November 1932 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly.
Leith has become interested in a crime involving a phoney fireman. While a fire raged in one house the foeman slipped next door and cracked the safe belonging to George Crampp, a retired businessman who claims to be penniless but who is suspected of having had a considerable amount of dishonestly acquired money in that safe. For this case Leith will need to buy up every single fireman’s costume in every single costumers’ in the city. He will also need a hundred dollar bill soaked in gasoline, crumpled up and then ironed flat. And last but by no means least, he will need to find an attractive red-headed woman with an evil temper and some training in boxing.

Sergeant Ackley thinks that this time he is finally going to nail Leith. Leith has spotted a clue that no-one in the police department has spotted and he has a fair idea of the solution to the mystery, and how to profit from it. It’s a typically clever little Gardner story.

The Seven Sinister Sombreros is another Lester Leith case, published in Detective Story in February 1939. This time Sergeant Ackley hopes to use the case of the drugged guard to trap Lester Leith.

A man named Bonneguard has formed a new political party, or perhaps it would be truer to say a new political cult. Whether Bonneguard has any actual interest in politics is uncertain but his new party is proving to be very profitable for him. Profitable enough that he has over $100,000 in the safe in his home. Or rather he had $100,000. The money has now been stolen. It was not just a guard who was drugged - two guards and a guard dog were immobilised but the source of the drug is a mystery.

Leith issues his instructions to Scuttle - to allow Leith to save the case Scuttle must procure for him a monkey wrench, half a dozen 1936 Fords, a ukulele, some cowpunchers, seven cowboy hats and a miniature replica surfboard. And of course, a hula dancer. In fact, several hula dancers.

There are really two plots here. There’s the search for the solution to the crime and then there’s Leith incredibly devious scheme to relieve the thief of the money without getting caught himself. Both plots are intricately constructed, especially the latter. A very entertaining novelette.

Gardner’s genius lay in coming up with a successful formula and sticking to it while at the same time making his plots ingenious enough to prevent the formula from going stale. He had a formula for the Perry Mason books. And based on these two books it appears that he had devised a perfect formula for Lester Leith stories. Sergeant Ackley tries to tempt Leith into investigating a particular crime, Ackley sets a trap, Leith orders Scuttle to obtain a collection of outrageous props, Leith stays one step ahead of everybody and there is always a colourful dame in the case.

These are light-hearted stories combining humour with skilled plotting. They’re great fun. There is a paperback collection of some of the Lester Leith stories. It’s long out of print but copies can be found if you hunt around for them. I know nothing about and I have no idea which stories are included but based on the two Lester Leith stories I’ve now read it might be worth looking into.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Mark Clifton's Pawn of the Black Fleet (When They Come from Space)

Pawn of the Black Fleet (better known under its alternative title When They Come from Space) is a 1962 science fiction novel by American writer Mark Clifton (1906-63).

I must confess that I hadn’t heard of the author but it turns out he was a Hugo Award winner and had enjoyed at least a modicum of success.

This is a first contact story, set at some time in to not-too-distant future, but it starts with a bureaucratic bungle. Ralph Kennedy is an ordinary guy, a kind of lower management type, working for a large company. He’s more than a little surprised to get a letter informing him that he, Dr Ralph Kennedy, has been accepted into the Space Navy and that he will be filling the important post of staff psychologist specialising in extraterrestrial intelligence. This puzzles him for several reasons. Firstly, he’s just plain Mr Ralph Kennedy, not Dr Ralph Kennedy. Secondly, since no extraterrestrial life has yet been discovered how can anyone be an expert in the subject? And he’s rather disturbed to find that he has no choice in the matter. He has to take the job.

It turns out that his main duties are to help the Director of Extraterrestrial Life Research, Dr Kibbie, spend the two billion dollars that Congress has (for no sensible reason) allocated to the department. 

In fact Ralph Kennedy will soon get to study actual extraterrestrial intelligence. This unexpected opportunity arises when the Black Fleet arrives. The Black Fleet is a swarm of sinister spacecraft and they are clearly hostile. But another space fleet arrives, and they’re clearly friendly. And a deputation from the friendly alien fleet wants permission to land in Washington DC. Curiously enough they seem very anxious to meet Ralph Kennedy. This does not please scheming billionaire media mogul Harvey Strickland who sees the alien visitation as a splendid opportunity to increase his own wealth and power.

This book starts out by giving the impression of being an amusing light-hearted satire, taking potshots at some sitting targets - bureaucrats, politicians and the military. As the story progresses it becomes evident that it’s actually something much cleverer. It’s a much more thorough-going and much more complex satire. At the same time it’s an intelligent and original first contact story.

As you might expect there is much speculation about the nature of these alien beings, and about their motivations and intentions. Ralph Kennedy has his own theories and finds that he’s out of step with the rest of humanity.

This is an amusing and very cynical little novel. This is definitely not hard science fiction. Clifton has little interest in science or technology. He spent much of his life working as a personnel manager and it’s obvious that he’s very interested in what makes people tick both as individuals and in groups. This is humorous science fiction but with some more serious overtones.

Apart from this novel Clifton apparently wrote a number of other Ralph Kennedy stories.

Pawn of the Black Fleet has recently been reprinted by Armchair Fiction in their series of pulp science fiction double novel paperbacks, paired with Henry Slesar’s  lightweight but enjoyable The Secret of Marracott Deep. This double-novel paperback really is worth grabbing. I was impressed enough to want to check out more of their double-header editions.

Does Pawn of the Black Fleet qualify as a neglected gem of science fiction? I think it does, or at least it’s a neglected gem of a certain type of satirical psychological/sociological science fiction. I’m now on the lookout for more of Clifton’s work.

Pawn of the Black Fleet is highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Day Keene's Sleep With the Devil

Gunard Hjertstedt (1904-1969) was an American writer of Irish and Swedish extraction who wrote about fifty novels, mostly pulp crime titles and mostly under the pseudonym Day Keene. He was also a successful writer for both radio (in the 30s and 40s) and television (in the 60s). The very noirish Sleep With the Devil was published in 1954.

Les Farron is a man with a plan and no morals to get in the way of the execution of said  plan. There are no spoilers whatever in what I’m about to tell you. Farron’s plan is laid out in detail for the reader in the first few pages of the book. Farron is a grifter and a part-time male model and part-time strong-arm man for loan shark Whit Bennett. Bennett’s activities are so outrageously illegal that Les figures it’s only a matter of time before the cops shut him down and there’s also the matter of the guy Farron beat up a bit too enthusiastically and the guy then, very inconveniently, died. So Farron reasons that the smart thing for him to do is to act before the cops do, kill Bennett and rifle his safe and then disappear.

The clever thing about Farron’s plan is that he has it all worked out how he’s going to disappear. He has discovered a little town called New Hope, about a hundred miles from New York, and he has a new identity for himself already established there. The folks of New Hope are ultra-conservative godly farmers. They’re not quite the Amish but they’re halfway there. No-one would ever think of looking for Farron there. In New Hope Farron is Paul Parrish, a devout Bible salesman.

New Hope has another attraction for Farron. That attraction is Amy. Amy is young and pretty and her father is very rich (these people are simple farmers but very successful ones and since they don’t drink or smoke or gamble they tend to accumulate wealth a pretty impressive manner). It should be possible for Farron, after lying low in New Hope for a while, to get his hands on her dad’s money. In the meantime he can marry Amy. That idea appeals to him. He’s never had a virgin before and he figures it could be exciting.

Farron is a smart guy. His plan is well thought out and he takes great pains with his preparations. He leaves nothing to chance. Nothing can go wrong. All he does to do it to wait things out in New Hope. That means going without the things that are as essential to him as breathing - cigarettes, booze and sex (or in the latter case going without sex until he and Amy are married). But he can do that for a few months. Well actually he gets really jumpy if he goes without those things for a few hours but as long as he keeps thinking about the money he’ll have at the end of it he convinces himself that he can do it.

And nothing does go wrong. In fact it all goes more smoothly than he could have imagined. It all goes smoothly, until it doesn’t.

Farron is a protagonist with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He possesses not the slightest trace of empathy for any other human being. Other people are potential sources of money, or in the case of women potential sources of sex. Amy is a potential source of both. Lydia, his girlfriend in New York, has a great body and she’s enthusiastic in bed. That’s all he wants from her. Of course all this means that he can’t always predict what other people will do. The idea that a person might be motivated by some other mention aside from greed or lust, or that a woman might be motivated by love - these are things that he cannot even comprehend. That could be a weakness.

This is a grimy sordid book, which of course is what the noir fiction genre is all about. It achieves its sordidness and griminess in fine style. Keene’s prose is stripped down and energetic.

There’s not a huge amount of actual violence. It’s the psychological brutality of Farron, his casual acceptance of violence as the normal way to deal with things, that has the impact. While Farron is sex-obsessed you won’t find any even moderately graphic descriptions of sex although there’s plenty of overheated eroticism.

Having half the action take place in New York and the other half in the radical different world of New Hope adds interest but it serves the author’s purposes in other ways. There’s also the contrast between the entirely corrupted Farron and the entirely uncorrupted Amy. And then there’s Lydia - is she one of the corrupted or one of the uncorrupted?

The ending might be thought to stretch credibility just a little but it works and there’s the ironic twist that you expect in noir fiction. Several ironic twists in fact.

Sleep With the Devil is a fine example of 50s noir fiction by a writer who has fallen into undeserved neglect. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A.S. Fleischman's Shanghai Flame

A.S. “Sid” Fleischman (1920-2010) was a New York-born professional magician who took up professional writing after the Second World War. He’s best remembered as a very successful writer of children’s books but he wrote a number of mysteries and thrillers. Shanghai Flame, published by Gold Medal in 1951, was his first spy thriller. Having spent the war in the Navy he had some familiarity with the Far East and that’s where this and most of his subsequent spy novels are set.

The narrator, Alex Cloud, is a newspaperman who likes drinking more than he likes working and he’s arrived in Shanghai to look for Flame. Flame is actually Paula Forrest, also an American reporter, and she’s the reason he drinks.

This is just after the Communist victory in the Civil War and the rumour is that Flame has gone over to the Reds.

Alex thinks that that the only reason he’s in Shanghai is to find Flame but he’s stumbled into something. He’s not sure what it is but it must be important because people are getting killed for it. He thinks it might have  something to do with a deck of cards. He runs into some old friends, although really they’re not exactly friends. They’re the types of people who’d be mixed up in anything that might involve a profit. They’re not political types but the Chinese Government seems to be taking an interest so maybe it is political.

And he has the opportunity to make lots of interesting new enemies. And he meets a a woman. Not Flame, but a Eurasian beauty named Ariadne. Alex is still in love with Flame, but that doesn’t stop him from ending up in Ariadne’s bed. That could cause difficulties with her husband, who is one of Alex’s old very disreputable (and very dangerous) acquaintances.

Of course he finds Flame but winning her back is another matter. Keeping her alive is a bigger priority. If he wants to keep her alive. Sometimes he’s not sure. He’s not sure if she’s forgiven him for sleeping with all those other women. He’s also not at all sure what she’s mixed up in but the Chinese Government has put a price on her head.

The bodies keep piling up. The action is pretty relentless in this story. Whether Alex ends up in a bar or a restaurant or a brothel or on a sampan, those bodies seems to keep accumulating. And Alex makes his own contributions to the body count. He spends more time with a gun in his hand that sitting at a typewriter like a good newspaperman.

Alex might be the hero but he’s definitely no Boy Scout. He’s quick with his fists and he has no great qualms about shooting people, or slapping women around. You have to be tough to be a newspaperman. This book belongs to the “ordinary guy gets entangled in espionage against his will” sub-genre but in this case the ordinary guy is no innocent.

While this does qualify as a Cold War spy thriller it doesn’t come across as being particularly political. Fleischman’s objective is to give us a two-fisted action thriller and he does a pretty good job. It’s a story just begging to be made into a movie. Spies, hardboiled reporters, an exotic setting, dangerous women, a McGuffin that lots of people are prepared to kill to get hold of, a stormy romance, lots of ambiguous but vaguely sinister characters, lots of violence and lots of implied sex - it has all the right ingredients. And if all that isn’t enough, there are also pirates.

Fleischman has no literary pretensions but he understands pacing and he knows how to write action scenes and he provides action in abundance.

Stark House have published this novel in a double-header paperback along with another Fleischman spy thriller, Counterspy Express (which was filmed in the late 50s).

Shanghai Flame is great pulpy spy adventure fun. It’s pure entertainment but it works just fine on that level. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

J.J. Connington’s The Brandon Case (The Ha-Ha Case)

J.J. Connington’s The Brandon Case (AKA The Ha-Ha Case), one of his Sir Clinton Driffield mysteries, was published in 1934.

Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947) was a distinguished scientist who wrote a notable science fiction novel and quite a few mysteries featuring either Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield or Superintendent Ross.

Jim Brandon arrives at the Edgehill estate to have a serious talk with his brother Johnnie. Their father inherited the vast Burling Thorn estate and an enormous income and ended up with even more enormous debts. He then borrowed more money to pay the debts. The only way out is to sell Burling Thorn but they can’t because it’s entailed. There is a way around the problem but it will need Johnnie’s co-operation. Unfortunately Johnnie is both foolish and stubborn and he’s now fallen under the influence of a scoundrel by the name of Laxford. What really matters is that Johnnie is about to come of age and when that happens the tangled affairs of the Brandon estate are likely to reach crisis point.

To add to the difficulties there seems to be something going on between that young fool Johnnie and Mrs Laxford, a young pretty woman with hot eyes.

Jim was met at the station by Una Menteith, another pretty young woman living at Edgehill whose position there is not at all clear. Also staying at Edgehill is a somewhat disreputable chap named Hay.

A decision is made to go out and shoot some rabbits and a terrible accident occurs. Inspector Hinton is by no means happy with the circumstances, particularly the bloodstain situation. The coroner’s jury brings in a verdict of accidental death but Hinton feels that the matter is worth further investigation.

Inspector Hinton is a competent policeman whose main fault is that he’s clever, but not quite so clever as he thinks he is. He is also ambitious. He is very keen indeed to become Superintendent Hinton. A big case is what he needs and he has a feeling he may have found one.

The financial tangle is much more complex than it seemed to be and the more the inspector finds out the more complex it becomes.

There’s also the matter of the escaped lunatic, a man who may at times be quite sane and even sharp-witted and at other times have no idea what is going on and no memory of anything that has happened.

There’s no impossible crime angle to this affair. The crime, if there was a crime, has a number of very straightforward very plausible solutions. The difficulty is the number of entirely plausible explanations and the number of entirely plausible explanations.

Inspector Hinton, whatever his faults, is thorough and he is also more than willing to make use of Beauty’s formidable private intelligence-gathering service. Beauty is in fact a Miss Tugby, a servant with an extraordinary capacity for finding out about other people’s private affairs. Beauty provides the inspector with some extremely interesting pieces of information.

Sir Clinton Driffield does not make his appearance until very late in the story. This is also the case in some of the other J.J. Connington mysteries. Driffield is the Chief Constable and of course Chief Constables do not usually intervene in any direct manner in their subordinates’ investigations, unless the subordinate manages to make a complete hash of things or runs into a brick wall. Fortunately for Connington’s readers that is not an uncommon occurrence.

There’s some fascinating stuff in this tale about the extraordinary complexities that could arise when an estate was entailed, especially when a curious custom known as borough-English is involved. This is a legal custom that in some circumstances gives the youngest son the rights that would normally devolve upon the eldest son.

It’s not overly difficult to figure out the identity of the murderer. The real interest lies in how it was done (it was much more complicated than initial appearances suggested), and in the much more difficult problem of proving it. Motives turn out to be more complex than they seemed to be as well. Inspector Hinton does plenty of detecting, sometimes to good effect. He does most of the very necessary routine investigating. Of course Sir Clinton Driffield is the one who finally solves the problem. He provides the equally necessary brilliant insights into what the clues really mean.

All in all a very satisfying detective novel. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Jessie Dumont's I Prefer Girls

I Prefer Girls is a 1963 sleaze fiction novel which belongs to the sub-category of lesbian sleaze fiction. This was an extremely popular sub-genre which can’t really be ignored. You probably won’t be surprised to be told that lesbian sleaze fiction was popular with both male readers and actual lesbians.

Sleaze fiction in general was often written by male writers using female pseudonyms or by women writers using male pseudonyms. Quite a few of these women writers were lesbians. In the case I Prefer Girls I honestly have no idea if the author, Jessie Dumont, was male or female. Some modern lesbians insist that no lesbian could have written this book but they may be overlooking the fact that the lesbian subculture of the 1950s and early 1960s was very very different from even the lesbian sub-culture of the ’70s and bore no resemblance to that of today.

I Prefer Girls is the story of Penny Stewart, who narrates the tale. Penny was a bit of a tomboy and did not get on with her parents. When they were killed in a car accident she moved post-haste to Greenwich Village and got a job in Marcella’s dress shop. She still had no idea that she was a lesbian. Marcella however easily convinced her, with the aid of some practical demonstrations in the bedroom, that she was in fact a lesbian. It was those practical demonstrations that really convinced Penny. 

However it hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing. Penny not only likes having sex with women. She likes having sex with lots of women. Marcella is older and she’s possessive and she’s not happy about this. Also Marcella is madly in love with Penny. Penny is not in love with Marcella. She’s happy for Marcella to keep her in comfort and she likes the sex but she wants her freedom, and that means the freedom to have as many other women as she chooses. So as the story proper opens the situation is a bit unstable and a bit uneasy.

Then Bernice comes along. Bernice is a waitress. She’s young and blonde and as a cute as a button. She’s also straight, and a virgin, and she has a boyfriend. To Penny these are merely minor details. She wants Bernice. She wants her real bad. The difficulties just make the pursuit more exciting and more challenging.

Penny likes challenges and when it comes to scheming and manipulating she has few equals.

When judging a book such as this you need to remember that that the authors of sleaze fiction had to consider the demands of the commercial marketplace and the demands of the publishers (in this case Monarch Books). With lesbian sleaze there was also the need to satisfy both male readers and lesbian readers. The lesbian readership on its own would not have been sufficient to make such books financially viable in 1963. The men readers obviously wanted lots of steamy lesbian couplings while the lesbian readers would have wanted romance and emotional melodrama as well. In 1963 there was also the problem that the book would have to be somewhat sympathetic, but not too sympathetic.

And there had to an atmosphere of actual sleaze because that’s the whole point of this genre of fiction - forbidden lusts, out-of-control passions, sin and sensation. Sex as something exciting, dangerous and naughty.

Penny herself is a bit of a monster. She’s not just completely self-centred. She also likes to dominate people. She likes to dominate them emotionally and she’s good at it. She realises quickly with Marcella that if she allows Marcella to dominate her in the bedroom that will give her the leverage to dominate Marcella in every other way. Penny’s understanding of power in sexual and emotional relationships is sophisticated and subtle. She doesn’t even mind submitting to a beating in order to increase her long-term power.

Penny is of course in many ways the stereotypical predatory lesbian (while Marcella is the archetypal older butch and Bernice is the archetypal femme) but the author is skilful enough to give the characters at least some semblance of nuance. Penny also has a dark secret (aside from her sapphic longings).

There’s an interesting symmetry to this story but I won’t spoil things by hinting at the nature of that symmetry.

The trick with sleaze fiction was to make the sex overheated without being explicit and Dumont does that pretty well. There are lots of lingering descriptions of the delights of the female body. 

I Prefer Girls works as early ’60s sleaze fiction and there are even some hints of noir fiction as Penny’s lusts and manipulations threaten to lead to disaster. Penny is a memorable femme fatale. I have no intention of telling you whether she really is led to disaster or not - one of the joys of the sleaze fiction of this era is that you can never be sure if the Bad Girl will be punished or redeemed.

I Prefer Girls is the sort of book that has to be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure but if you like indulging in guilty pleasures it’s fun.

And the cover of the Blackbird Books reprint features the same great Robert Maguire painting as the original.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Frank Kane's The Living End

Frank Kane (1912-68) was a successful American hardboiled crime writer who has now fallen somewhat into obscurity. He was successful writer for radio and wrote a lot of scripts for the excellent 1958-59 Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer TV series. He also wrote about forty crime novels most of which featured PI Johnny Liddell. The Living End (in which Johnny Liddell does not appear) was published in 1957.

Eddie Marlon is a skinny Polish-American kid who desperately wants to be a song writer. He’s written a song which he figures will be a surefire hit if only someone will get behind it. He has no talent. The song is just a pastiche of half a dozen current hits. But a lack of talent never stopped anybody from being a success in the music business. He tries to get a music publisher named Devine interested, to no avail. Devine does however offer to get a job as an assistant to popular radio DJ Marty Allen. Eddie’s job will be to pick the records that get paid. Devine warns him that Marty Allen is a straight up and down guy - he’s one of the few DJs who doesn’t accept payola.

Eddie honesty is roughly on par with his talent but he’s prepared to go along with Allen’s rules. Then he gets introduced to sultry up-and-coming singer Jo Leary. Jo and her record company’s contact man Mike Shannon are desperate to get her platter on the radio. Jo tells Eddie that there’s no question of paying money to get her record played but that if somebody could get it some air time she could find other ways to express her gratitude. Mike assures Eddie that Jo can be a remarkably grateful girl. And Jo is a sexy platinum blonde with curves in all the right places.

Getting a few air plays for Jo’s song is just minor league stuff. There is real money to be made if you're a guy with flexible ethical standards, or even better no ethics at all. It’s a certainty that Eddie is going to be tempted again.

Temptation comes in an unexpected form. It has to do with a girl (the platinum blonde mentioned above) and a whip. The whip has been used on the girl. Used a bit too enthusiastically. It was a sex game that got out of hand. It wasn’t Eddie who used the whip but it gives him the opportunity to begin his rise to being a big shot in the music industry.

This book is not at all what you might be expecting from a ’50s hardboiled crime novel. There is crime, there is racketeering, but this is strictly white-collar crime. No-one gets taken for a ride by the boys. There are no guns. It’s essentially an exposé of the notorious payola racket, with DJs paid to promote songs. This novel was published in 1957 and the payola scandal broke in a big way two years later. Of course the music business promised to clean up its act, and of course they never did.

The Living End provides a fascinating insight into the almost unbelievably corrupt world of the American music business in the 1950s, and into the extraordinarily ingenious methods by which so many people in a sleazy business were making easy money by manipulating hits.

As a hardboiled crime novel, well this simply isn’t a hardboiled crime novel as such. It’s still quite intriguing, it has a memorable and extremely nasty villain and an overwhelming  atmosphere of corruption and nastiness. It has the tone of a hardboiled crime story but don’t expect any action or any violence. There’s not much sex either although sordid sexual shenanigans are hinted at obliquely (such as payola in the form of sexual favours). Apart from the matter of the girl and the whip the book doesn’t really get into overt sleaze.

This is a bit of an oddball novel but it’s not without interest. It’s an interesting journey into the moral squalor of white-collar crime. Worth a look.

The Living End has been recently reprinted by Black Gat Books.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Van Wyck Mason’s The Fort Terror Murders

The Fort Terror Murders was published in 1931. It was the third of F. Van Wyck Mason’s twenty-six spy thrillers featuring American G-2 intelligence agent Hugh North. At this stage of his career Hugh North holds the rank of Captain.

Hugh North is in the Philippines and at a dinner party at Colonel Andrews’ house there is much excitement among the officers and their ladies. The excitement concerns the deserted and half-ruined Spanish fortress, Fort Espanto (“Fort Terror”). According to local legends there is treasure hidden somewhere in the fort, treasure that once belonged to the Jesuits before they we unceremoniously expelled from the fort. A fabulous treasure. That was centuries ago. Since that time many have sought that treasure, and they have all died. For the fort is haunted by ghosts - jealous, vengeful ghosts. Now two people claim to have discovered the secret of the treasure’s location.

Hugh North isn’t concerned by ghosts but by much more prosaic evils. The treasure will belong to Senorita Inez Sarolla and her family, and to her fiancé Lieutenant Bowen. Most of the young officers are by no means rich. A junior officer’s pay is not generous. Impoverished young officers and their ladies are not immune to jealousy or to greed. Such a treasure is likely to excite similar emotions even among the senior officers and their wives. It is clearly a potentially dangerous situation and those legends of mysterious deaths and disappearances do not reassure him - they could suggest temptations to weak-minded men (and women).

A party of a dozen or so officers and their women set off for the fort at dead of night to join in the fun of the uncovering of the treasure. The treasure hunt ends disastrously, with one man dead and another who simply vanished. Since Hugh North is an officer with the Intelligence and Criminal Investigation Department of the Army he takes charge of the case.

The tragic events occurred in total darkness within the vast bulk of Fort Espanto. It had originally been a monastery which was converted into a modern fortress by the Spanish in the late 18th century. Much of the original monastery remains. It could of course be riddled with secret passageways but while plans of the fort exist no plans of the original monastery survive, and any secret passageways would have been built into the monastery. There is no way of knowing if they exist or where they might be.

And since the events occurred in darkness no-one is sure where anybody else was at the time.

The clues are particularly puzzling. Two rosaries, both very unusual, and a cryptic message scrawled on a note. Hugh North believes that these clues contain a cypher, but it’s a fiendishly complex one.

But greed is not the only unhealthy passion at work here. There is also lust. Several illicit and intersecting love affairs seem to be approaching crisis point.

While the Hugh North novels are spy thrillers they also include definite murder mystery elements and this particular book is more or less a pure murder mystery. It’s made more interesting by being set in the tropics, which in the 1930s was synonymous with mystery, intrigue, madness and forbidden passions. The vast decaying fortress and the fact that the keys to the location of the treasure lie in the distant past add some gothic touches.

Of course mysteries set in ruined monasteries that include hidden passageways, and passions unleashed by life in the tropics, are deeply unfashionable today. And when you add notions of military honour it becomes even more unfashionable. To me that makes the book all the more appealing. Nobody writes books like this any longer, and that’s very sad. Van Wyck Mason was very very good at writing such books.

Hugh North is also a very old-fashioned hero. Although occasionally his methods can be ruthless (he deliberately and rather callously misleads a key witness) he is essentially a man of honour who does his duty. That’s not to say that he’s a dull square-jawed storybook hero. He’s capable of action but mostly he relies on his brains rather than on brawn. His approach is patient and intellectual.

If you love both golden age detective fiction and spy thrillers then Van Wyck Mason is the author you’ve been looking for all these years. In the pre-war Hugh North books he provides plenty for fans of both genres. The Fort Terror Murders is a bit unusual in including no actual spy thriller elements but it does have the sort of exotic setting that spy fans love. And it does have cyphers. Even cooler, it turns out that solving the cypher is not quite enough to solve the mystery - there’s an extra fiendish twist.

This one throws in assorted gothic and pulp elements as well - not just secret passageways but legends of ghosts and fiendish murder methods (such as murder by cobra). You have to remember that in 1931 Edgar Wallace was at the peak of his popularity so it made sense for Van Wyck Mason to throw in the kinds of things that Wallace fans enjoyed.

The Fort Terror Murders is gloriously entertaining. Highly recommended.

All the early Hugh North books are good. If you want more of a mixture of detective and spy elements then I’d recommend The Budapest Parade Murders or The Singapore Exile Murders. If you want a great spy story (and yes it does have murder as well) then check out the excellent The Branded Spy Murders.